I want to talk about sex. It would seem like a simple thing to do after listening to Janet Jackson's new album and looking at her new videos. Sex is the theme. Sex is obviously on her mind, on my mind, on the minds of her fans who are consuming her record in mass quantities. Yet when Janet arrives at her dressing room, when she's standing before me in leather and suede form-fitting pants and tight halter top, when she slides into an easy chair next to me, I find myself backing off. What gives?
"We're all sensitive people," Marvin Gaye sings in "Let's Get It On," a song that has undoubtedly influenced the current direction of Jackson's career. Her sensitivity is as apparent as the body she has worked so hard to perfect. I work hard not to stare. But here is what I see: soft shy smile, tiny waist, snappy booty – among her dancers, the troupe she calls the Kids, Janet's nickname is Booty – high cheekbones, copper coloring to her hair, luminous skin. She's petite in stature and whisper quiet when speaking. I lean in to listen as she tells me she's a little tired after a tough video shoot for the song "If," from her latest album, janet. I think about the shoot itself, a video Janet has just described as a "female fantasy."
Well, female fantasy or not, I can relate. There are tantalizing bodies inches from my eyes. There is choreographed mock-cunnilingus. There is the phenomenon of Janet, off camera, watching herself being watched in this video of watchers, while another film crew makes a video on the making of the video. Reality is scrambled. Voyeurism is rampant. The music is pumping, the message obvious as an orgasm. I'm stimulated.
Yet, here with Janet, I'm reluctant to bring up sex. As silly as it sounds, I sense myself protecting her from the brashness of my own balls-out approach. What is it? Wholesomeness – that's what it is. Femininity. Up close, in the flesh, she's being so damn sincere, I question my own sincerity; Janet Jackson gives off a good-girl vibe that only a cad would challenge. Despite this new album and its preoccupation with carnal knowledge, despite this battery of sizzling videos, Janet silently demands decorum on the part of an interviewer. Decorously, then, I introduce the subject of sex. Why such an abundance of sex on her new record? Is it simply a selling ploy?
"No, no, no," Janet protests. "I can't fake it. I can't do it if I don't feel it. It's genuine. You could say I've entered a happy phase of sexuality."
I urge her to be more specific. She pauses, her sensual mouth breaking into a small smile.
"Look," she continues, "sex has been an important part of me for several years. But it just hasn't blossomed publicly until now. I've had to go through some changes and shed some old attitudes before feeling completely comfortable with my body. Listening to my new record, people intuitively understand the change in me."
She then tells me about something Camille Paglia, the sociosexual pop scholar, recently wrote about janet: " 'Janet's unique persona combines bold, brash power with quiet sensitivity and womanly mystery. Her latest music is lightning and moonglow.'
"You see," Janet continues, "sex isn't just fire and heat, it's natural beauty. Doing what comes naturally. It's letting go, giving and getting what you need. In the age of AIDS, it certainly requires being responsible. On a psychological level, though, good sex, satisfying sex, is also linked with losing yourself, releasing, using your body to get out of your body. Well, for the first time, I'm feeling free. I love feeling deeply sexual – and don't mind letting the world know. For me, sex has become a celebration, a joyful part of the creative process."
Janet is intrigued with the process – writing, dancing, developing concepts. Clearly, she's in full control. "Every aspect of my recording or performance is vital," she states adamantly. "Nothing happens without my approval.
"It began with Control," she says, referring to her first hit album, made eight years ago when she was 19. "But it wasn't easy. I come from a sheltered background. And then suddenly I'm off to Minneapolis, and these guys, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, are running around cursing like crazy. That made me so uncomfortable I wanted to go home – until I saw that they meant no harm or offense. They were merely talking the way they talk. They were being funny. They were being real. The problem was with my perception, not with their hearts. It's taken me a while to realize – and rap has really helped educate me – that language is not an absolute. No word is absolutely wrong or dirty or insulting. It all depends upon context and intention. I was this little prude. I was uptight. I knew I wanted control – I still believe in creative control – but I soon saw that I'd have to give in order to get: give myself over to a creative environment that was different and even a little dangerous from anything I'd ever known.
"The danger hit home when a couple of guys started stalking me on the street. They were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening. Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down. That's how songs like 'Nasty' and 'What Have You Done for Me Lately' were born, out of a sense of self-defense. Control meant not only taking care of myself but living in a much less protected world. And doing that meant growing a tough skin. Getting attitude."
All this is said sweetly, though underneath her words I feel steel.
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